For decades, Israeli governments have defended the 52-year military occupation in the West Bank as necessary for security. In reality, however, the government’s operations in the West Bank go far beyond security and administrative measures, and are instead designed to cement and extend permanent control over Palestinian territory in a process that’s come to be known as de facto or ‘creeping’ annexation.
The process involves the construction of Israeli settlements, incentives for Israelis to move onto Palestinian land, restrictions that prevent Palestinians from building or farming on their land and demolitions of Palestinian communities and infrastructure.
Not only does de facto annexation violate the rights of Palestinians to live freely on their land and entrench an unjust, indefinite military occupation, it also undermines the prospects for Palestinian statehood under a two-state peace agreement, puts thousands of young Israelis in harms way serving on occupied territory and undermines Israel’s status as a truly democratic homeland for the Jewish people.
According to Michael Sfard, a leading Israeli expert in international law, de facto annexation is not a legal term, but more “a political description of reality.” It describes a program of operations carried out by the Israeli government and Israel’s far-right settlement movement which is designed to integrate an increasing amount of occupied Palestinian territory into Israel. The ‘unofficial’ nature of these facts on the ground allows the government to portray itself as ‘temporarily’ occupying and administering the territory it controls, pending a peace agreement with Palestinian representatives.
Former Prime Minister Netanyahu has been explicit about the longer term vision in numerous books and speeches, describing his goal as permanent control of the entire territory, with a degree of autonomy given to Palestinians within certain areas (but not full citizenship rights, and never independent statehood).
It’s a project which is advanced and supported by a range of Israelis for a variety of reasons: There are settlement advocates who advance ideological claims that Jews should live on and control the entire biblical region of “Judea and Samaria”; leaders like Netanyahu who claim peace agreements can’t work and permanent control is essential for Israeli security; Israelis who have moved to settlements made them their home; and political leaders who seek the support of ideological and non-ideological settlement proponents alike.
Sfard outlines three primary tactics which the Netanyahu government in particular has used to expand the amount of Palestinian territory under its control, and to secure this control long-term: Demographic engineering, infrastructure development and the application of Israeli law in Palestinian territory.
Sfard describes ‘demographic engineering’ as the effort by the Israeli government and its right-wing allies to change the demographic make-up of the West Bank to look more like Israel. This includes incentivizing Israelis to move into settlements on the occupied territory and providing security and infrastructure support to more ideological settlers on the far right who seek to establish their own, unofficial outposts deeper in Palestinian territory. Since the beginning of this process, nearly 500,000 Israeli settlers have moved into the West Bank, with that number increasing rapidly each year. As well as supporting the increasing numbers of Israelis living on Palestinian territory, Prime Minister Netanyahu has repeatedly promised never to ‘uproot’ Israelis living there, a red line that makes peace negotiations increasingly difficult.
As settlements multiply, and infrastructure to connect them increasingly carves up the territory and divides Palestinian communities, everyday Palestinians face more and more obstacles in their daily lives. Their movement is heavily restricted around settlements, their property is often destroyed and their land looted, and — as progressive Israeli NGOs continue to highlight — they face the constant threat of violence perpetrated by the more right-wing and ideological settlers. The effect is to force Palestinians to abandon their homes and farmland and move into clusters, and allow settlements to expand and occupy more and more of the territory.
While the Israeli government has distanced itself from unofficial settlement outposts, in reality it provides both infrastructure services and security support to many of them. “Governmental inquiries have made it clear that Israeli ministries have aided those who establish the outposts, and in the last decade, there’s been a huge project by the government of Israel of retroactively legalizing all these outposts,” Sfard says.
The Israeli right wing is not just changing the demographic make-up of the occupied West Bank, but its landscape and infrastructure as well. In order to service the growing population in settlements, the Israeli government has constructed new highways, public transit systems, and networks of utilities like electricity, water, and sewage, which Sfard describes as “stretching out across the West Bank like veins and arteries.”
This spreading mass of infrastructure has not just encouraged the movement of more settlers to the area but has also curbed Palestinian development in the West Bank. Most if not all of the infrastructure is designed exclusively for use by Israeli settlers, and effectively off-limits for Palestinian use. That has meant increasingly strict movement restrictions on Palestinian citizens, with Palestinian infrastructure and homes and farmland being demolished and cleared to make way for settlement infrastructure. Thousands of Palestinian homes have been demolished, dozens of Palestinian towns torn apart, and any remaining usable Palestinian land cut into smaller and smaller pieces. While making life more convenient for Israeli settlers, the infrastructure has cut off Palestinian farmers from their farmland and dramatically increased travel time for Palestinians who live just miles apart, but must navigate around settlements and settlement infrastructure.
The Israeli government’s exercise of control over the West Bank is experienced by Palestinians as a military occupation, with military legal processes and soldiers exercising control over daily life. For Israelis living in West Bank settlements, by and large, the same laws and provisions apply as if they were within Israel’s recognized borders.
Essentially, the Israeli government operates a dual legal system in the West Bank, where Israeli citizens are subject to most normal Israeli law, while Palestinians are subject to the military laws set for the occupied territory. Sfard describes it as a “bubble” that Israeli citizens are surrounded by when in the West Bank.
Since the military laws in the West Bank are considerably stricter than Israeli common law, this means that Israeli settlers and Palestinians often face dramatically different punishments for the same crime. In altercations between settlers and Palestinians, even when provoked or initiated by settlers, soldiers will often take action only against Palestinians. Laws passed by the Israeli Knesset can also exacerbate the impunity for settlers, an example being regularization law which retroactively legalized settler homes built on Palestinian land, which Sfard describes as having “robbed Palestinian landowners of their property, and provide it to settlers who trespassed into those lands.” (Eventually, the law was ruled unconstitutional by the Israeli high courts.)
For Sfard, the motivations Israeli government’s motivations behind de facto annexation are simple: “It aspires to make facts clear: this is part of Israel.” The far right wing, which under Netanyahu has accumulated significant influence over Israeli policymaking, believes strongly that Israel has a rightful claim to all the territory in the West Bank as a continuation of the ancestral home of the Jewish people.
By deepening and expanding the Israeli presence on Palestinan land, ideological proponents of the settlement movement hope to undermine Palestinian people’s right to that territory and hope to create difficult-to-change ‘facts on the ground’ which undermine any hopes of Palestinians gaining sovereignty through a two-state solution. Their goal — a Jewish state which encompasses the entirety of ‘greater Palestine’ — is one which would simultaneously trample self-determination and human rights for millions of Palestinians and also continue the erosion of Israel’s democratic character.
It isn’t. International law is clear about the responsibilities of governments when they are exercising effective control over territory beyond their borders, and in its prohibition on unilaterally annexing territory.
According to international law, an occupying power cannot operate as a sovereign state on foreign territory. It must not seek to transfer its citizens onto the territory. It must not force local inhabitants off their territory. And it must govern the area for the good of the occupied people — not for the benefit of its citizens back home. The annexation of territory by force is unlawful under both written and customary international law.
At J Street, we believe that supporting Israeli security and self-determination for the Jewish people does not necessitate turning a blind-eye to Palestinian human rights issues or the harmful actions being carried out by Israel’s right-wing government. We must state clearly: De facto annexation is a serious threat both to the rights of Palestinians and to Israel’s future as a just and truly democratic homeland for the Jewish people.
Together, our movement is pressing for American leaders to make clear — in both their words and actions — that while we support Israel’s security, we strongly oppose demolitions, settlement expansion and the ongoing erosion of Palestinian rights and Israel’s democratic character.
Tell Congress and the Biden Administration: American aid to Israel must not be used for demolitions, evictions or settlement expansion
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